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Chapter 23

THE "BOOK OF UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD"


It is fitting that a few words should be said about the writer of the "Book of Universal Brotherhood."

Sylvanus Stone, having graduated very highly at the London University, had been appointed at an early age lecturer to more than one Public Institution. He had soon received the professorial robes due to a man of his profound learning in the natural sciences, and from that time till he was seventy his life had flowed on in one continual round of lectures, addresses, disquisitions, and arguments on the subjects in which he was a specialist. At the age of seventy, long after his wife's death and the marriages of his three children, he had for some time been living by himself, when a very serious illness--the result of liberties taken with an iron constitution by a single mind--prostrated him.

During the long convalescence following this illness the power of contemplation, which the Professor had up to then given to natural science, began to fix itself on life at large. But the mind which had made of natural science an idea, a passion, was not content with vague reflections on life. Slowly, subtly, with irresistible centrifugal force--with a force which perhaps it would not have acquired but for that illness--the idea, the passion of Universal Brotherhood had sucked into itself all his errant wonderings on the riddle of existence. The single mind of this old man, divorced by illness from his previous existence, pensioned and permanently shelved, began to worship a new star, that with every week and month and year grew brighter, till all other stars had lost their glimmer and died out.

At the age of seventy-four he had begun his book. Under the spell of his subject and of advancing age, his extreme inattention to passing matters became rapidly accentuated. His figure had become almost too publicly conspicuous before Bianca, finding him one day seated on the roof of his lonely little top-story flat, the better to contemplate his darling Universe, had inveigled him home with her, and installed him in a room in her own house. After the first day or two he had not noticed any change to speak of.

His habits in his new home were soon formed, and once formed, they varied not at all; for he admitted into his life nothing which took him from the writing of his book.

On the afternoon following Hilary's dismissal of the little model, being disappointed of his amanuensis, Mr. Stone had waited for an hour, reading his pages over and over to himself. He had then done his exercises. At the usual time for tea he had sat down, and, with his cup and brown bread-and-butter alternately at his lips, had looked long and fixedly at the place where the girl was wont to sit. Having finished, he left the room and went about the house. He found no one but Miranda, who, seated in the passage leading to the studio, was trying to keep one eye on the absence of her master and the other on the absence of her mistress. She joined Mr. Stone, maintaining a respect-compelling interval behind him when he went before, and before him when he went behind. When they had finished hunting, Mr. Stone went down to the garden gate. Here Bianca found him presently motionless, without a hat, in the full sun, craning his white head in the direction from which he knew the little model habitually came. The mistress of the house was herself returning from her annual visit to the Royal Academy, where she still went, as dogs, from some perverted sense, will go and sniff round other dogs to whom they have long taken a dislike. A loose-hanging veil depended from her mushroom-shaped and coloured hat. Her eyes were brightened by her visit. Mr. Stone soon seemed to take in who she was, and stood regarding her a minute without speaking. His attitude towards his daughters was rather like that of an old drake towards two swans whom he has inadvertently begotten--there was inquiry in it, disapproval, admiration, and faint surprise.

"Why has she not come?" he said.

Bianca winced behind her veil. "Have you asked Hilary?"

"I cannot find him," answered Mr. Stone. Something about his patient stooping figure and white head, on which the sunlight was falling, made Bianca slip her hand through his arm.

"Come in, Dad. I'll do your copying."

Mr. Stone looked at her intently, and shook his head.

"It would be against my principles; I cannot take an unpaid service. But if you would come, my dear, I should like to read to you. It is stimulating."

At that request Bianca's eyes grew dim. Pressing Mr. Stone's shaggy arm against her breast, she moved with him towards the house.

"I think I may have written something that will interest you," Mr. Stone said, as they went along.

"I am sure you have," Bianca murmured.

"It is universal," said Mr. Stone; "it concerns birth. Sit at the table. I will begin, as usual, where I left off yesterday."

Bianca took the little model's seat, resting her chin on her hand, as motionless as any of the statues she had just been viewing. It almost seemed as if Mr. Stone were feeling nervous. He twice arranged his papers; cleared his throat; then, lifting a sheet suddenly, took three steps, turned his back on her, and began to read.

"'In that slow, incessant change of form to form, called Life, men, made spasmodic by perpetual action, had seized on a certain moment, no more intrinsically notable than any other moment, and had called it Birth. This habit of honouring one single instant of the universal process to the disadvantage of all the other instants had done more, perhaps, than anything to obfuscate the crystal clearness of the fundamental flux. As well might such as watch the process of the green, unfolding earth, emerging from the brumous arms of winter, isolate a single day and call it Spring. In the tides of rhythm by which the change of form to form was governed'"--Mr. Stone's voice, which had till then been but a thin, husky murmur, gradually grew louder and louder, as though he were addressing a great concourse--"'the golden universal haze in which men should have flown like bright wing-beats round the sun gave place to the parasitic halo which every man derived from the glorifying of his own nativity. To this primary mistake could be traced his intensely personal philosophy. Slowly but surely there had dried up in his heart the wish to be his brother.'"

He stopped reading suddenly.

"I see him coming in," he said.

The next minute the door opened, and Hilary entered.

"She has not come," said Mr. Stone; and Bianca murmured:

"We miss her!"

"Her eyes," said Mr. Stone, "have a peculiar look; they help me to see into the future. I have noticed the same look in the eyes of female dogs."

With a little laugh, Bianca murmured again:

"That is good!"

"There is one virtue in dogs," said Hilary, "which human beings lack--they are incapable of mockery."

But Bianca's lips, parted, indrawn, seemed saying: 'You ask too much! I no longer attract you. Am I to sympathise in the attraction this common little girl has for you?'

Mr. Stone's gaze was fixed intently on the wall.

"The dog," he said, "has lost much of its primordial character."

And, moving to his desk, he took up his quill pen.

Hilary and Bianca made no sound, nor did they look at one another; and in this silence, so much more full of meaning than any talk, the scratching of the quill went on. Mr. Stone put it down at last, and, seeing two persons in the room, read:

"'Looking back at those days when the doctrine of evolution had reached its pinnacle, one sees how the human mind, by its habit of continual crystallisations, had destroyed all the meaning of the process. Witness, for example, that sterile phenomenon, the pagoda of 'caste'! Like this Chinese building, so was Society then formed. Men were living there in layers, as divided from each other, class from class---'" He took up the quill, and again began to write.

"You understand, I suppose," said Hilary in a low voice, "that she has been told not to come?"

Bianca moved her shoulders.

With a most unwonted look of anger, he added:

"Is it within the scope of your generosity to credit me with the desire to meet your wishes?"

Bianca's answer was a laugh so strangely hard, so cruelly bitter, that Hilary involuntarily turned, as though to retrieve the sound before it reached the old man's ears.

Mr. Stone had laid down his pen. "I shall write no more to-day," he said; "I have lost my feeling--I am not myself." He spoke in a voice unlike his own.

Very tired and worn his old figure looked; as some lean horse, whose sun has set, stands with drooped head, the hollows in his neck showing under his straggling mane. And suddenly, evidently quite oblivious that he had any audience, he spoke:

"O Great Universe, I am an old man of a faint spirit, with no singleness of purpose. Help me to write on--help me to write a book such as the world has never seen!"

A dead silence followed that strange prayer; then Bianca, with tears rolling down her face, got up and rushed out of the room.

Mr. Stone came to himself. His mute, white face had suddenly grown scared and pink. He looked at Hilary.

"I fear that I forgot myself. Have I said anything peculiar?"

Not feeling certain of his voice, Hilary shook his head, and he, too, moved towards the door.


John Galsworthy